Culture

DRC’s ‘Culinary Mistress’ Shares Her Recipe for Matembele, a Congolese Specialty

 

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Marie-Noëlla Muhindo Muhambikwa, 51, is the chef and restaurateur behind Chez Maman Noëlla, a restaurant located in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the city of Goma. Aside from being a host for a number of radio and television cooking shows, Muhambikwa has volunteered her time to teach others the art of Congolese cuisine. Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC
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Democratic Republic of Congo

Matembele, the staple leafy green in the Democratic Republic of Congo, packs dishes with vitamins and is enjoyed daily by many Congolese families. A popular chef, known in her region as the “Mistress of Culinary Arts”, shares her recipe on matembele as she serves it in her restaurant.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In households across DRC, diets center on vegetables. Potatoes and cabbage are common. But the king of Congolese vegetables is matembele, a leafy, spinach-like green.

Matembele is the Lingala word for sweet potato leaves. It’s found in many local gardens and is enjoyed daily by Congolese families across the nation.

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The matembele at Chez Maman Noëlla includes garlic, tomato, ginger, nutmeg, sweet pepper, Maggi seasoning cubes, peanut or palm oil, salted fish, or makayabo, and the leaves of sweet potatoes — the matembele. Served alongside fufu, it’s a classic Congolese dish.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Marie-Noëlla Muhindo Muhambikwa, a local journalist who hosts a cooking show on Radio-Télévision Nationale Congolaise (RTNC) in the North Kivu province, is known as the “Mistress of Culinary Arts”. The widow of a former chef, she started her kitchen as a fire pit on a dirt road in 1993. Today, she has a small restaurant, made of wooden slats and measuring 9 meters by 4 meters at the foot of Mount Goma. Locals, on average more than 50 per day, come to her restaurant, Chez Maman Noëlla, for her best dish: matembele.

Muhambikwa, 51, says good food is the key to happiness.

“I always advise young girls to cook well, like me, to ensure the happiness of their households,” she says. “The way a Congolese woman is valued depends on her cooking skills.”

Matembele is popular for its taste and its nutritional value, she says. It’s rich in vitamins A, B2, C, fiber and iron. The leaves are effective in relieving constipation and curing anemia, she says, adding she believes it works wonders for spinal tuberculosis, too.

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Muhambikwa sits in front of her kitchen at Chez Maman Noëlla, in Goma.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Milo Prof, a customer at Chez Maman Noëlla, says matembele is everywhere in DRC. But it’s special at Muhambikwa’s restaurant.

“I’ve known the matembele from my childhood. It is widely consumed in our village. But this matembele, served here in the restaurant, tastes different,” he says, adding, “I wish my wife would come to learn from Marie-Noëlla.”

On a recent visit to the restaurant, Muhambikwa narrated her secret recipe for Global Press readers.

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Muhambikwa of Chez Maman Noëlla restaurant in Goma, buys her salted fish, known as “makayabo” from the Virunga market.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Matembele, or sweet potato leaves, are often grown in home gardens, but are also available at the market. During harvest season, there’s an abundance of the small leaves with both thin and thick blades at the Virunga market in Goma.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa displays the spices and vegetables that will accompany the matembele and makayabo, in the matembele dish, at Virunga market in Goma. Onion, Maggi seasoning cubes, sweet peppers, nutmeg, ginger, tomatoes and garlic are among the ingredients.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa prepares her matembele by trimming the stems. Meanwhile the makayabo soaks in a pot of water to dilute the salt.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

A pot of water boils in preparation for cleaning the matembele. The hot water ensures that any bacteria is removed from the leaves.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Marie-Noëlla cuts the washed matembele into small pieces.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

The chopped pieces of matembele are sauteed in a pot with palm or peanut oil.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa chops onion and sweet pepper for the matembele sauce.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa grates garlic, ginger and tomatoes for the matembele sauce.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

When the palm or peanut oil becomes hot, Muhambikwa adds the prepped vegetables, including the grated garlic, ginger and tomatoes, to the pot.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa stirs the vegetables and spices in the pot of oil. She allows the ingredients to cook down to a sauce before adding the sauteed matembele.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

While the sauce simmers, Muhambikwa pulls the makayabo out of the water, dries it, and lightly fries it with palm or peanut oil in a pan.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

When the sauce has cooked down, Muhambikwa adds the sauteed matembele to the mixture.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa displays a piece of the fried makayabo before adding it to the pot of matembele.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

With all the ingredients — the sauce, matembele and the makayabo — in the pot, Muhambikwa adds some hot water to the mixture.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Fufu, a staple dish in the Democratic Republic of Congo — and throughout other regions of Africa — is made to accompany the matembele. Fufu is often made from maize or cassava flour, and has the consistency of a firm dough.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

Muhambikwa spoons the matembele onto a plate. The dish is rich in vitamins A, B2, C, and contains high amounts of fiber, protein, beta-carotene, iron, and phosphorus. According to the customers of Chez Maman Noëlla, it’s also very delicious.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperance, GPJ DRC

WHAT YOU NEED
Chopping board
Large bowl
Saucepan
Cooking pot with a lid
Wooden spoon

INGREDIENTS
2 ¼ (17 ounces) water
3 or 4 bunches matembele, or sweet potato leaves. If desired, use beet greens or collard greens as a substitute for matembele.
3 pieces of dried and salted cod
½ cup (4 ounces) palm or peanut oil
2 white onions, finely chopped
4 Maggi Seasoning cubes (available on Amazon)
1 sweet pepper, finely chopped
1 piece of ginger, grated
8 tomatoes, finely chopped
15 garlic cloves, grated
1 tsp. nutmeg

 

HOW TO COOK MATEMBELE
1. Place the fish in cold water to dilute the salt. After soaking for 2 hours, the fish should be set aside in a cloth to dry.

2. Wash the matembele thoroughly, and quickly blanch in boiling water.

3. Cut the leaves of the matembele into bite-size pieces and dry them in the sun for three hours to remove any sap. If the weather is bad, or if you are cooking inside, sauté them in a separate saucepan using cooking oil for 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Toast the previously-washed fish with peanut or palm oil in a saucepan over medium heat until the fish is lightly browned.

5. At the same time, begin the sauce. In a pot over medium-low heat, add the white onions, pepper, tomatoes and ginger, Maggi cubes, nutmeg and oil to cook for 15 minutes. Allow the sauce to simmer on low heat until a red-orange color has been achieved (about 10 minutes).

6. When the sauce is ready, add the matembele leaves to the mixture and stir.

7. Add the fish and water, and cover the pot to bring the mixture to a boil for 15 minutes.

8. Prepare your accompanying dish of choice. Rice, fufu or plantains are often used to accompany the matembele.

9. When it’s ready, gather around the table to savor the genius of Congolese cuisine!

Recipe note: Matembele is best served with fresh or smoked fish and fufu, a doughy mixture of cassava or maize flour and water. Because matembele is often served with salted cod, or makayabo, she cautions against over-seasoning with salt.